“Why should federal funds be allocated to extend broadband infrastructure into rural areas where it doesn’t make any business sense?” I was asked this question recently by a member of a local community at one of our Strategy Sessions (an initial step with communities kicking off a Foresite Group Broadband Master Plan).
This is a fair question. Currently the Federal government, managed by NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), has allocated $42.45 billion through the BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment) Program to “expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs” across America and our territories. Another $1 billion will be allocated for the construction, improvement, or acquisition of middle mile infrastructure. Additionally, qualified households may be eligible to receive $30 each month for broadband service and up to $100 for a computer through the ACP (Affordable Connectivity Program). These are just a number of federal grant programs available today – numbers we have never seen before in federal broadband investment.
In my response, I explained that while there may not be an immediately obvious business case to support a traditional financial return on this kind of investment, there is surely a case for investing in the future economic health and welfare of our country. Consider the construction costs of highways and bridges, water and sewer systems, even the electrification of the early 1900’s. Like all infrastructure investment, we need to look past the immediate profitability and consider the long-term benefits.
If we look past the recreational uses of an internet connection (i.e., downloading songs and movies, shopping, gaming, etc.) to the more pragmatic applications of true broadband connectivity, such as: students actually doing homework at home, uploading large files for work, or even other uses such as monitoring and switching utilities, or aging in place… we begin to see the long-term impact.
Imagine our financial future if:
our students, who will be competing in a global marketplace, experience lower employment and attain lower incomes because they are not adequately educated
families aren’t as healthy because they can’t access the available healthcare
businesses (new and existing) don’t thrive because there is no connection to customers and other vendors
But, all this looks different when we have access to the world wide web of information, telehealth and telemedicine, more efficient management of natural resources (electricity, water, gas), and more efficient production and sales (automation, smart agriculture, e-commerce, etc).
Let’s first consider three areas where investment can impact broadband:
Access – actual physical access to broadband infrastructure, a connection at your location
Availability – affordable service
Adoption – use of broadband services
…and the way the NTIA recognizes three levels of broadband service:
Served – greater than 100 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload
Underserved – less than 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up, but greater than 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload
Unserved – less than 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload
You have probably heard buzz words and catch phrases like “digital divide” or “rural broadband”. The FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report indicates that 21.3 million Americans, or 6.5 percent of the population, lack access to broadband internet, including wired and fixed wireless connections. These statistics come directly from service providers, so admittedly, there may be inaccuracies. According to Tom Wheeler (previous chairman of the FCC) “there are up to 42 million Americans for whom this essential network is not available, and millions more for whom it is available but unaffordable.” High-speed broadband is accessible, available, and adopted in many high-density markets with greater levels of disposable income. But, even though the individual consumer needs are the same, there is not a business case to provide these services in areas with lower populations and lower incomes.
“Why should federal funds be allocated to extend broadband infrastructure into rural areas where it doesn’t make any business sense?” Because that’s the only way they will ever get it. The incumbent telecommunications service providers aren’t at fault here, this isn’t their responsibility. They are private businesses. They report to stockholders whose focus is on speed-to-market and short-term return on investment. They are running for-profit businesses.
When we start looking at the increasing demand for higher broadband speeds, lacking market penetration of infrastructure necessary to support current and future broadband usage, and how this impacts our daily lives – think of the number of connected devices in your home or office, or the technologies governments use to responsibly manage traffic, public safety, and services, or the way utilities manage their assets and resources to provide for our day-to-day lives. Without the financial investment to promote and support rural broadband, we will continue to see the migration out of those communities into urban and suburban areas. Consider what that means for the agricultural and energy production the entire nation relies on.
“Why should federal funds be allocated to extend broadband infrastructure into rural areas where it doesn’t make any business sense?” We have to ask ourselves, what are the real costs? Are we willing to ignore the need for broadband in rural America and accept the disastrous impact on our society? It is our government’s responsibility to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” and we are blessed as a nation to have the necessary resources to assist our rural communities in this pursuit of sustainable future-proof technologies that we can all benefit from.
About Lee Comer
Lee Comer is the Broadband Engineering Services Practice Area Leader at Foresite Group, LLC. He brings over 20 years of experience as a designer, supervisor, and project manager in the telecommunications industry. A native Alabamian, Lee earned his B.S. and M.S. in Industrial Design from Auburn University. With a passionate focus on improving the way people relate to each other, information and technology, and their environment, Lee translates his knowledge of design, construction, and installation of communication networks into a comprehensive infrastructure program to create connected communities.